La Calisto, English Touring Opera, ETO, Hackney Empire, October 2016Posted on 15 October 2016
This 1651 opera by Venetian composer Francesco Cavalli (1602–76), based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, concerns a nymph called Calisto (‘most beautiful’ in Greek), lusted after by Jupiter who disguises himself as her mistress Diana in order to woo her. Diana herself is secretly drawn to one of her admirers, the youth Endymion, setting the stage for some confusing desires. In the final act Jupiter’s jealous wife Juno turns Calisto into a bear, later transported to the heavens to become a constellation of stars.
At least that’s the outline, with subplots involving Diana’s warrior nymph Linfea, the goat-boy Satirino and goat-god Pane, who is Endymion’s rival for Diana. Yet director Timothy Nelson, who also conducts the small baroque orchestra, sees deeper meaning in the opera’s text by Giovanni Faustini, a librettist and impresario who collaborated extensively with Cavalli and died just three weeks after the opening night of this opera.
Nelson has based his production on Faustini’s clever allegory about the contemporary tussle between Science and Church, treating Endymion as Galileo and emphasising Diana’s role as moon goddess. A blackboard on stage covered with drawings and calculations later shows the words Eppur si muove (And yet it moves), Galileo’s famous retort after being forced to recant his claim that the earth orbits the sun. Indeed in Act 3 Endymion retorts to Pane that they may tell him to stop loving, but still he loves.
The designs by takis suggest a mechanistic world that is a precursor to the Age of Enlightenment, while the sexual predations and infatuations of the characters reflect a human emotional milieu, inhabited by the gods themselves in the Classical myth behind this story.
The cast of ten worked well as a team to bring out the lusts and life of this opera, with Nick Pritchard a notably lively Mercury interacting well with the handsome Jupiter of George Humphreys, and tenor Adrian Dwyer a witty presence in female costume as the warrior nymph Linfea. There is some gender bending in this opera, and the clarity and vocal passion of Paula Sides as Calisto finds its libidinous expression in the arms of Diana without realising it is Jupiter in disguise. With powerful vocal defiance from the real Diana of Catherine Carby, and insincere sympathy to Calisto from the imperious Juno of Susanna Fairbairn, the ladies had a strong night, none more so than Katie Bray who injected huge joie de vivre and vocal fun into the role of the goat-boy Satirino.
English Touring Opera does a great service by staging the high jinks and bringing out the meta narrative in this early opera by two brilliant men of the theatre (Cavalli and Faustini), from the days when Venice was very much at the cutting edge of this new genre of stage entertainment.
Performances continue on tour at Malvern Theatres, 21st Oct; Theatre Royal Bath, 24th Oct; Harrogate Theatre, 29th Oct; Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, 3rd Nov; Snape Maltings Concert Hall, 12th Nov; Buxton Opera House, 17th Nov; Exeter Northcott Theatre, 23rd Nov.